Grooming is when someone builds a connection with someone to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, child porn production or sex trafficking. Grooming can be done in person and online. Grooming is most commonly done by people who are known to the victim like parents, other family members, friends, teachers, babysitters or other kinds of caregivers. Strangers can groom children as well, this is most common online or by adults who are in or around settings like children’s centres.
Grooming can be done by any kind of person but the abuser having some level of pre-existing social or other kinds of power over the victim or a preexisting emotional connection like in the case of a family makes grooming easier.
Grooming itself is a form of emotional and psychological abuse in and of itself. One of the keys to grooming is Trauma Bonding. The grooming behaviours will also often continue throughout the abusive relationship even after explicit sexual abuse has started.
Patterns of Grooming Behaviour:
- Identifying Victims:
- Any child can be a victim of grooming however grooming of children who are already vulnerable is much more common.
- Gaining Trust and Access:
- Abusers will track the behaviours of their victims and put them self into the child’s pattern and befriend them. Often offering a child special forms of attention. They often fill holes in emotional support the child has or exploits other vulnerabilities. Grooming can also include things like giving presents, playing games, giving food or giving rides. The concept from the world of cult psychology “love bombing” can be present here. Giving the child levels of connection, praise, presents and kindness that from a step back we can recognize as over the top, but when it’s experienced it can be overwhelming.
- Playing a Role in The Child’s Life:
- The abuser will ingratiate themselves fully into the lives of the victim. This often includes forming an emotional connection where the victims feel the abuser needs them and that they are the only people who understand each other. Showing up continuously and being there physically all the time or if it’s digital abuse constantly messaging the child or having a consistent schedule of interaction.
- Abusers often isolate their victims getting them alone like giving private rides, taking the victim for private time out, holding the victim after class, “mentoring” the victim, inviting them over, or otherwise separating the child emotionally and physically for abuse. Now depending on the relationship to the victim, this may happen on a spectrum. In some cases, abuse can happen out in the open if those around them won’t intervene.
- Secrecy and Control of Relationships:
- This often combines things like trauma bonding and reinforcing how special the victim is and the victim/abuser relationship. Phrases like “no one understands” or “this is our special relationship”. Threats of suicide and self-harm are often common, so are threats of violence against the child and family. This is often where levels of trauma bonding really start to come into play. You start to get a pattern of behaviour that causes extreme levels of positive emotions and extreme levels of fear, confusion and pain.
- Initiating and Escalating Sexual Contact:
- Physical or other forms of sexual contact will start small like touching children on the bottom, gliding hands across thighs and arms, “accidentally” touching chests or groins. It often escalates even farther possibly all the way to sexual intercourse, which is rape. In online cases, it starts as mildly explicit images or roleplays. It can then escalate to roleplaying rape scenes, production of child porn by videos or images of the child doing sexual acts. This escalation is common because it desensitizes the target to sexual contact. This is less common with cases of trafficking because it often stars with abduction or targets homeless children who can be targeted with extreme behaviours.
- Continuous Control of The Relationship:
- Trauma bonding behaviours, threats, and isolation will continue. Shaming and blaming the victim for the abuse is common, making the victim feel worthless or at fault for the abuse is an extreme mechanism of keeping the child from telling about abuse. Praising the victim for compliance and acting cruelly for deviating or running from abuse is common as well. Using insults, misogynistic comments (like Sl*t) and making the victim feel like they are only for sex and connecting the child’s worth to sex is common as well.
Other Behaviors Groomers Might Use:
- Lying about their ages
- Lying about who they are in other ways
- Leveraging positions of power over children
- Normalizing sexual material in the content they make
- Use sites like Omegle or other poorly monitored video chat sites or messaging services
Signs of Grooming:
- Social Changes:
- Attachment issues may be read as “clingy”
- Being extremely secretive of their actions in school, in a specific club, or online
- Disconnecting from parents, friends or other social relationships
- Having a best friend or partner who is significantly older than them
- Having a completely disproportionate view of one person as way too amazing
- Spending way too much time with a specific person
- Mental Health:
- Obsessive thought or behaviours
- Sleeping Issues (insomnia, hypersomnia or nightmares)
- Other Behavioural Changes:
- Any extreme behaviour changes
- Dressing in new or different ways
- Inappropriate sexual knowledge
- Missing School
- Possession of drugs and alcohol in young children
- Receiving gifts that don’t make sense or he won’t talk about
- Spending time in locations that seem odd
Risk Factors for Grooming:
- Early exposure to drugs and/or alcohol
- Bullying or other forms of social isolation
- Child neglect, physical and/or emotional
- Disabilities physical and mental
- Emotional, physical or other forms of abuse before and during the grooming
- Exposure to sexual material before the abuse
- Isolation by being a minority
- Mental illness
- Parents who are not home for work or other reasons
- Previous sexual abuse
- Sexualization of the child online (Think Instagram models age 13 who appear and dress as adults)
How Grooming Affects Ability to Report:
Grooming affects victims likelihood to report their abuse or ask for help. For the beginning of grooming relationships the victim might be feeling extremely good, the relationship is positive and often feeling something missing in the kid’s life. They form a strong bond with their abuser as someone whom they care for and might honestly love the person harming them.
Abusers target people who are usually not being supported by others and are so vulnerable so they often don’t even have someone who would really listen and are missing the signs of grooming and abuse.
Children will not recognize any behaviours as abuse because they are so young. It is very easy to convince kids that abuse and love are one and the same. A kid might even assume that every kid goes through this and that nothing is wrong with the treatment.
Self-image are broken down so the kid feels worthless or like this is all they are meant for. A child who believes this would be unlikely to tell someone because they think no one would care or that this is what they should be doing. Some of these kids might already feel worthless or alone and this can be further pressed into their minds.
Fear and threats are also common, a child afraid for their life or those they care for is unlikely to tell people what is wrong. This happens in sexual abuse and sex trafficking.
Another factor is non-belief when kids try and tell people what is happening to them and often warped understanding of how abuse looks and happens. A lack of language and ability to explain their experiences also blocks reporting.
Lastly trauma bonding is a combination of many of the factors forms bonds with abusers that can act like an addiction, warp perspectives of the abuser and make the relationship intoxicating and consuming.
Grooming in Adults:
We often only hear grooming discussed in the cases of CSA however grooming tactics are also used on adults. They are used on parents of abused children and Intimate Partner Violence (IPV).
With parents of abused kids, the groomer will often seek to influence them so they are blind to behaviours of the abuser and signs in the kids. You can see a display of how this works in the Leaving Neverland & Surviving R Kelly documentaries. They will give gifts and even financial support to the parents. Abusers will form close emotional connection and leverage power and status over the parents. A different form of this happens in the family, the other parents and adults around are often already ingrained in abusive dynamics with this person and love them so either dismiss the children outright if they report or might even know the abuse occurs the whole time but never reports it and acts as if it is normal.
The inability to budge and believe the person is abusive is extremely common with high-status individuals like the above-mentioned celebrities, priests, politicians or people with other high social standings.
When looking at interpersonal violence many of the above steps happen. They are of course because there is often less power imbalance though usually some degree. The person also doesn’t often test sexual boundaries as slowly but will often push boundaries sexually, socially and emotionally. Escalation of abusive behaviour is very common. The love bombing is super common as well. Previous abuse becomes even more of a warning sign in these cases. I think viewing abusive relationships between teen and adults as having grooming dynamic can really reframe any thoughts of “why didn’t you see this to start with” and “why didn’t you just leave”. Again trauma bonding is a huge factor here.
- “Grooming Dynamic.” Grooming Dynamic of CSA, The National Center For Victims of Crime, 2011, https://victimsofcrime.org/media/reporting-on-child-sexual-abuse/grooming-dynamic-of-csa
- Nspcc. “Grooming.” NSPCC, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/grooming/
- Samsel, Michael. “ Grooming.” Grooming for Abuse, www.abuseandrelationships.org/Content/Behaviors/grooming.html.
- MacMillan, Amanda. “How to Spot ‘Love Bombing,’ a Sneaky Form of Emotional Abuse.” Health.com, Meredith Health Group, 23 Mar. 2018, www.health.com/relationships/love-bombing-emotional-abuse